In – Αἰώνιος in the New Testament – the four adverbial instances — Jefferson Vann shows that the four New Testament passages most likely to prove that the traditional understanding of αἰώνιος is correct – prove the opposite. The passages disprove the idea that αἰώνιος always refers to a perpetual process.
Adjectives as adverbs
In English, the adjective is sometimes used in the place of an adverb. If I say to someone “I am doing good,” or “Come here quick!” no one usually calls me on my grammatical slip. I should have said “I am doing well,” or “Come here quickly” because doing and coming are verbal ideas, and as such should be modified by adverbs, rather than adjectives. However, the Greeks occasionally did the same thing: they sometimes used adjectives as adverbs, under certain circumstances.
I wanted to examine the uses of αἰώνιος in the New Testament, to see if I can make a case that the term is usually used attributively to indicate something that is permanent as opposed to something that is temporary. But before I examine the attributive uses of αἰώνιος in the New Testament, it is best to first look at the four cases in which the word is adverbially – used to modify a verb.
What I want to establish is that there is no New Testament example where αἰώνιος has to refer to perpetual process. That is the way traditionalists see the word acting in such phrases as “eternal life” and “eternal punishment.” They see those terms as referring to processes which continue perpetually. As a conditionalist. I translate phrases ζωὴν αἰώνιον or ζωὴ αἰώνιός as “permanent life.” The phrase referring to the destiny of the lost I translate as “permanent punishment.” To me, permanent punishment is capital punishment. It is the opposite of permanent life. It is permanent death. I see the adjective αἰώνιος as perfect to describe both destinies because, instead of describing the process of living or being punished (as an adverb might) αἰώνιος describes the state of someone who has been given life contrasting it with the state of someone who has been punished with death. Both of those states are permanent. Each is αἰώνιος.
Here are the four instances in the New Testament where the adjective αἰώνιος serves adverbially. In each case, I will include the Greek text and my own English translation after it. If the adjective αἰώνιος is describing a perpetual process, that should be most obvious in these instances where it is used adverbially.
Τῷ δὲ δυναμένῳ ὑμᾶς στηρίξαι κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου καὶ τὸ κήρυγμα Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, κατὰ ἀποκάλυψιν μυστηρίου χρόνοις αἰωνίοις σεσιγημένου, φανερωθέντος δὲ νῦν διά τε γραφῶν προφητικῶν κατ᾽ ἐπιταγὴν τοῦ αἰωνίου θεοῦ εἰς ὑπακοὴν πίστεως εἰς πάντα τὰ ἔθνη γνωρισθέντος,
Now to him who is able to strengthen you as I teach when I share the gospel and proclaim Jesus Christ, according to the revealed mystery that had been kept secret for long ages, but now has appeared, and through the prophetic scriptures has been made known to all the nations, as the permanent God has commanded, to bring about obedient believers–
There are two instances of αἰώνιος in these two verses; only the first one is adverbial. Paul explains the gospel as a mystery that has been revealed. But before it was revealed, the gospel was kept secret (σιγάω) for long ages (χρόνοις αἰωνίοις). Now, if αἰώνιος always means forever, then Paul could not have said that. His point was that the secret has been revealed when Christ appeared.
This passage shows us that the term αἰώνιος can refer to a process that goes for a long period of time (like the process of keeping the gospel a secret) and then ends. It disproves the idea that αἰώνιος always refers to a perpetual process.
2 Timothy 1:9
τοῦ σώσαντος ἡμᾶς καὶ καλέσαντος κλήσει ἁγίᾳ, οὐ κατὰ τὰ ἔργα ἡμῶν ἀλλὰ κατὰ ἰδίαν πρόθεσιν καὶ χάριν, τὴν δοθεῖσαν ἡμῖν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων,
who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,
God gave us his divine purpose and grace in eternity past. It was a gift of grace from the very beginning. This act of giving us hope took place before the ages began. It is an event in the past which is being described. That event took place at a point in time; it is not perpetually taking place. Here again, this text disproves the idea that αἰώνιος always refers to a perpetual process.
ἐπ᾽ ἐλπίδι ζωῆς αἰωνίου, ἣν ἐπηγγείλατο ὁ ἀψευδὴς θεὸς πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων,
In hope of permanent life, which God (who is free from deceit) promised before the ages began.
Here is another verse containing two instances of αἰώνιος, where only one of them is adverbial. In the first instance, ζωῆς αἰωνίου describes the believer’s future hope: permanent life. The second instance tells us when God promised that future destiny. He promised it πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων (before the ages began). That promise took place at a point in time; it is not perpetually taking place. Here again, this text disproves the idea that αἰώνιος always refers to a perpetual process.
Τάχα γὰρ διὰ τοῦτο ἐχωρίσθη πρὸς ὥραν, ἵνα αἰώνιον αὐτὸν ἀπέχῃς,
Because maybe this is why he was parted from you for an hour, so that you might have him back permanently,
Paul tells Philemon that he might have lost his slave Onesimus only temporarily (πρὸς ὥραν) so that through the apostle’s intervention, he might have him back (ἀπέχω, from ἀπό and ἔχω) permanently. This is clearly and adverbial use of αἰώνιος, but it does not refer to the slave perpetually returning to his master. It refers to Onesimus returning to his master as a one-time event, and then being in a returned state permanently.
These uses of the word αἰώνιος comprise only four of the 71 times the word appears in the New Testament.1 So, I am not asking anyone to come to the same conclusions I have regarding the meaning of αἰώνιος. Traditionalists, who see the word only referring to a perpetual process, should ask themselves why the word was not used that way in the four verses where it would have been more natural for the word to have that meaning.
In other words, if eternal punishment means a process of being punished eternally, then why wasn’t the gospel mystery kept hidden eternally in Romans 16?
If eternal punishment means a process of being punished eternally, then why is Paul not talking about God eternally giving his grace in 2 Timothy 1?
If eternal punishment means a process of being punished eternally, then why is Paul not saying that God is perpetually promising eternal life in Titus 1?
If eternal punishment means a process of being punished eternally, then why is Paul not suggesting that Philemon could always be in a process of getting his slave Onesimus back?
The answer to all four of these questions is that in the New Testament αἰώνιος never refers to an ongoing process. It refers to a permanent state. Therefore, eternal punishment refers to the second death: a state of being dead forever. I will attempt to prove that assertion by examining the other sixty-six instances of the word in the New Testament.
- The count is only 70 if you do not count the so-called longer ending of Mark 16:8.